Climbing to New Heights

Climbing to New Heights

Mackenzie Bernhardt

Sacred Valley Service, Peru 2022

All images have been provided by Mackenzie. Read her story below!

Mackenzie Bernhardt gives a big shout out to “Momma Nancy” when she talks about her homestay experience in Pachar, Peru. Mackenzie stayed with Nancy and her family for three nights during the Sacred Valley Service program. Mackenzie says the village matriarch was so welcoming after the teens completed a long day of service.

“She was the best. She loved to host. She loved to have people at her house, so every night we’d have all the girls come over and have a girls’ night at Momma Nancy’s house,” Mackenzie said.

Rustic Pathways students bond with local villagers in Peru.

The students in Mackenzie Bernhardt’s group bonded with a number of local villagers during their program. Photo: Mackenzie Bernhardt

The downtime in the local village home was a nice respite from the work the students did to build a water irrigation system for crops. Mackenzie says the trench was already built by a previous group, so their job was to fill it with rocks and cement that they made.

“It was hard work. I wasn’t expecting the service to be so physically challenging, but it was fun,” Mackenzie said. “Everyone was doing the same thing. Everyone was cheering each other on.”

The work was an integral part of the program, which offers the most service hours out of the options in Peru – about 40 hours completed across two weeks. In addition to the service, students enjoy plenty of adventure activities, reflections, and cultural lessons during their journeys.

Mackenzie said these experiences were very different than what people get when they only travel to the tourist regions of Peru.

“Not everybody is going to a village at 12,000 feet and digging with pickaxes,” Mackenzie said.

Views from the Top of the World

For Mackenzie, those moments of service and adventure at high altitudes were among the biggest advantages of traveling to Peru. From atop mountains, the views are breathtaking. One of the places they visited that is nearly 8,000 feet above sea level is the famous Machu Picchu ruins. The site was on Mackenzie’s bucket list of historical locations to see.

Rustic Pathways student Mackenzie Bernhardt takes in the views at Machu Picchu.

Mackenzie Bernhardt takes in the views at Machu Picchu.

She had previously traveled with her family to countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, Canada and France. But she had never been to South America. She wanted to go to the Southern Hemisphere where she could hike, practice Spanish, try a homestay and see the famous Incan ruins.

“It was definitely a highlight. It was totally surreal to walk around and wonder, ‘How is this a real place?’” Mackenzie said. “It was so cool learning about it in history class and then seeing it in real life.”

An added bonus was that Machu Picchu was one of the last stops on the program. That way Mackenzie said, they had learned about aspects of the Incan Empire earlier in the program so they had background knowledge before the visit. Also helpful was the fact they had a great local guide.

Mackenzie said they took a bus up to the ruins area and then walked down. That made things a little easier. Earlier, the group had a more difficult hike, which was one of the highlights of the program for Mackenzie. She said the program leaders joked that they were going on a five hour hike, but that in reality it was two.

During that trek, they had to take frequent breaks as they headed up a mountain. When they got to the top, it was clear that it was all worth the effort.

“We stared at the view for an hour, Mackenzie said. “I remember being super happy and realizing, ‘This is where we are right now. Wow, I’m in Peru.’”

She also said she was amazed at the stars during her time in the mountains. During their second village stay in Marcuray the students camped in tents, keeping warm with alpaca sweatshirts the program leaders recommended.

Mackenzie says they could see everything in the night sky – the Milky Way and all the different constellations. It was like being in a different world.

During that time there were moments to reflect on what the students had witnessed when visiting the two villages where they did work – first Pachar and later Marcuray where they enlarged a play area at a local school.

“The kids lived so simply and were so happy all the time. They could go without wifi. They could go without food for the day and not have a care in the world,” Mackenzie said. “During our reflection time, we talked about how the United States was very materialistic, and how we’re wrapped up in our own lives. In the village everyone helps everyone. You help your neighbor. They want the best for everybody.”

The student group emulated this sense of togetherness throughout the program. The camaraderie made a big difference for the teens as they explored the country and its culture.

“Everyone was so welcoming and so eager to get to know you,” Mackenzie said. “The program  leaders were super helpful… the second I got there all my nerves went away.”

This led to the development of new friendships. Mackenzie said two of her fellow students even went to a concert together back in the United States when they returned home. Those connections bolstered students during the adrenaline portions of the program, as well.

Time for Adventure

Adventure activities during the program include hiking, paddle boarding, swimming, mountain biking, rock climbing and ziplining. Mackenzie says it was fun to swim with wet suits while gazing at snow-capped mountains in the distance. Then they biked to the famous little town of Ollantaytambo.

For the hiking portions, she says it helps that the treks – like the two hour mountain climb – came half way through the trip. By that point they were adjusted to the altitude. One aspect that helped with this were the soccer games the students played with children in the villages, along with games like jump rope. Doing activities like this at a higher altitude enabled them to adjust.

Rustic Pathways students take a break while hiking in Peru.

Mackenzie’s Sacred Valley Service group take a break while hiking. Photo: Mackenzie Bernhardt

By the time they got to the rock climbing and zip lining activities, they were physically ready to go. Mackenzie said the activity required climbing up ladders bolted to cliffs to get to the zip lines. When they reached a higher altitude Mackenzie had a nice surprise.

“I could see Momma Nancy’s house and I recognized where I was,” MacKenzie said.

Afterwards, the students were treated to American burgers, which helped them get ready for home. The students enjoyed many chicken and rice meals during the trip and also tried new foods including guinea pig and alpaca. However, towards the end of the journey Mackenzie says it was nice to have something familiar.

Then as she headed home, Mackenzie was able to think about what she wants to do next based on her new found passions.

”I used to like hiking. Now I love hiking and want to do more…. I never was a soccer person and now I love soccer. I did not previously try new foods and now I tried guinea pig,” Mackenzie said. “I also learned to not stress the little stuff. It’s time to go with the flow and live in the moment.”

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